Among its many treasures, the JTS library holds one of the largest Judeo-Persian manuscript collections in the world. Dr. Vera Basch Moreen, a leading scholar of Judeo-Persian culture, recently completed a “Catalog of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts in The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.” Primarily a work of reference, the catalogue is a scholarly examination of the subjects that interested Persian Jews between the 15th-19th centuries, and makes clear the extent to which these Jews were enmeshed in the literary and artistic sensibilities of their Iranian environment.
To mark the publication of this extensive catalog, JTS has created a small but select exhibit of some of the finest examples of the Judeo-Persian manuscripts in its collection. These beautiful manuscripts, written primarily in Judeo-Persian (Farsi in Hebrew letters) provide us with a lens into this singular community of artisans and workers. Persian Jews mirrored the general Persian culture in their love of poetry and many of the manuscripts attest to that devotion. The subject matter includes Judeo-Persian transcriptions of Persian classical literature, original Judeo-Persian epics and poetry based on biblical and Jewish themes, along with classical and original Hebrew poetry, all written in Judeo-Persian script. Although, according to Dr. Moreen, it is unlikely that the beautiful Persian-style drawings which appear in some of the manuscripts were created by Jewish artists, it is clear that the Hebrew text was penned by Jewish scribes.
In the illustration, Joseph is shown in chains at right, on the way to being thrown into the pit, as he is being maltreated by his brothers. At left, Joseph is pulled out of the pit by the Midianite merchants while his brothers watch apprehensively.
Sufism, Islamic mysticism, often pervades the text of these manuscripts, and many of them can be described as mystical romances. Interestingly, the story of the biblical Joseph and his near-tryst with Potiphar’s wife, took on a different life within the Koran, Islamic culture, and Persian culture in particular. Potiphar’s wife is given a name (Zulaikha) and a sympathetic interpretation; in the Sufi construction, Zulaikha’s lust for Yusuf (Joseph) represents the soul’s longing for God. The popularity of this story within Persian culture is reflected in its many recurrences within Judeo-Persian manuscripts, and the exhibit displays two outstanding examples, one from the 17th century, and one from the 19th.
The collection can be a guide to understanding the legacy of this ancient community. In fact, there’s been an ongoing community in Persia (modern-day Iran) since 587 B.C.E., when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple, and it’s the oldest, continuous Jewish community in the Diaspora. Most of the Jews in Arab countries were forced out between 1920 and 1970 but Iranian Jews, protected by the Shahs, actually prospered and lived freely during that time. With the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the majority of Jews in Iran emigrated to the U.S. or Israel but there’s still a population of approximately 9,000 Jews remaining. The manuscripts provide a valuable historical and cultural outsider Jewish lens.
The Judeo-Persian Manuscripts will be on display through December 24th at The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary at 3080 Broadway. The exhibit is also available online.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.